Numinous Experience

Rudolf Otto – The Numinous
In The Idea of The Holy Otto characterises religious experiences as feelings of dependence, awe-inspiring, fascinating and terrifying.

Otto was one of the most influential thinkers about religion in the first half of the twentieth century. He is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion. He calls this experience “numinous,” and says it has three components. These are often designated with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is “wholly other”– entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious.

Outline of Otto’s concept of the numinous (based on The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923; 2nd ed., 1950 [Das Heilige, 1917]):

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (fearful and fascinating mystery):

Mysterium“: Wholly Other, experienced with blank wonder, stupor
awefulness, terror, demonic dread, awe, absolute unapproachability, “wrath” of God
overpoweringness, majesty, might, sense of one’s own nothingness in contrast to its power
creature-feeling, sense of objective presence, dependence
energy, urgency, will, vitality
fascinans“: potent charm, attractiveness in spite of fear, terror, etc.

Examples are numerous, especially Old Testament ones. Eg. Ezekiel’s vision of Seraphim – found himself indescribably insignificant and sinful in comparison to the majesty of the vision

Issues related to the numinous:

Can we claim that numinous experiences are veridical – that they are an insight into the divine?

Sceptic might claim they are just feelings
This doesn’t help very much- many feelings are based on judgements and dependent on interpretations of situations eg. – feelings of contempt towards those we have seen acting badly. In other words emotion is never purely internal – it is linked to the external world, so the fact that the numinous has an emotional content doesn’t mean there is no reality behind it

Are numinous experiences cognitive or non-cognitive?
R W Hepburn draws parallels with other experiences – the motion of the sea still felt even when the ship stops moving – it is hard to decide if this is real or imagined, but in numinous there is nothing to help us to decide – concludes it is probably impossible to answer the question.

Similarities with types of aesthetic experience – such as hearing a symphony and being moved, transported – feelings of the sublime in nature, catharsis in theatre etc. Some might appeal to the comparison to lend weight to the veridicality of numinous exp. We know we cannot put our experience of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony into words – we don’t disbelieve in it because we cannot do this – so we shouldn’t with numinous exp.
Unfortunately this still begs the question – cognitive or non-cognitive? Why say numinous exp. is exp of a ‘Wholly Other’ realm – we don’t usually believe the same for the musical experience.


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